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The fencing that currently sits outside the southwest concourse of Washington-Grizzly Stadium may not look like much now, but it is the first step toward construction of a much-needed facility for Montana's athletic department.

Construction crews on Thursday began work to reroute underground piping that will eventually allow for the development of the $14 million Washington-Grizzly Champions Center, a 46,000-square-foot facility that will bring the department out of the dark ages and into a new era.

The stories of former football coaches hiding the locker room from recruits and spinning stories of how their weight room was "under construction" have been passed down for years. Not long from now -- plans call for the Champions Center to be completed in time for the 2017 opener -- athletes, coaches and recruits will be able to marvel at the department's latest addition. 

"Well, it’s been critical. It’s long been known that our infrastructure facilities have been severely lacking," Montana athletic director Kent Haslam said Thursday afternoon.

Crews will work through the summer rerouting underground infrastructure and remodeling parts of the stadium's southwest concourse before temporarily patching up the area in time for the beginning of Montana's football season on Aug. 29.

Haslam said the construction will not cause any conflicts with parking or the south end zone tailgate area this season.

Once Montana completes its final home football game of the season, work will immediately begin on the structure that will distance the department from the dilapidated facilities its student-athletes are currently using. 

"Washington-Grizzly Stadium is awesome, the Adams Center is great, the soccer facility, all those places where they compete are really great places, but they don’t spend the bulk of their time there," Haslam said. "They spend the bulk of their time in practice facilities, academic centers, locker rooms, weight rooms, practice gyms -- those kind of things."

Though much of the facility will be geared toward enhancing the Grizzlies' football program, which will be adding more than 4,500 square feet to its locker room, nearly and tripling its current size, the construction of the Champions Center will directly impact all of Montana's 15 NCAA sanctioned sports.

In addition to the football locker room, a new unified 17,500-square-foot weight room available to all of Montana's athletes will replace the much smaller rooms scattered about the Adams Center. 

The project, financed through a $7 million donation from Kevin and Kyle Washington on behalf of the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, and other private revenue will include four meeting rooms. It is also planned to include new football offices that will move the Grizzlies' coaches out of the Adams Center, further opening up much-needed space. 

The construction of the Washington-Grizzly Champions Center follows a renovation of the Adams Center that allowed for the $2.5 million student-athlete academic center, expected to be completed later this year.

"I’ve long said we don’t need Taj Mahal, we don’t need things that are over the top," Haslam said. "We just need functional, safe, clean and nice facilities that can serve our student-athletes for a long time; we want something that will last for a long time."

Designed by CTA Architects, a Missoula-based firm the department selected after consulting a number of firms, the Champions Center's exterior will not reflect the initial renderings that were released in October 2014.

Haslam said the department on Wednesday had one of its final meetings to decide what the facility will look like. He said he expects those designs to be released shortly, but didn't have a specific date.

"We just wanted to make sure the Washingtons were comfortable," he said. "It’s impressive, it will be a really neat structure."

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